Reason Not to Go to Law School #25

Asshole Teaching Assistants.

I want to start by saying not all teaching assistants are assholes.  I was a teaching assistant during my senior year of undergrad and like to think I did a pretty decent job.  Many teaching assistants recognize that they are only a few semesters removed from the class they are teaching and approach their position with the appropriate level of humility.

Not quite the case with law school teaching assistants.  Law schools are overrun with massive egos, and so getting good grades, a fat job offer, and a TAship tends to make 3L students think they’re the shit.  They’re not.  They’re simply the biggest tools in the school.

Their entire exposure to legal practice has been a 10 week summer associate gig which typically involves more 2-hour lunches and firm sponsored outings than actual legal research and writing.  And yet, they do a lot of the heavy lifting in legal research and writing classes, or as some schools have begun calling it, “Lawyering” (because they try to add in other lawyerly skills, like bullshitting and complaining about crappy assignments).

So, to demonstrate just how awful the asshole TAs can be, here’s an e-mail that was sent from one of my lawyering TAs to the entire class (but not the professor):

Hey everybody,

After being in class with you all again, I have to say that I was a tad under impressed with the class participation and focus.  More than a few of you were pretty squirrelly today.  I know that Lawyering seems to be less important than your other classes, but this summer you’ll be reassessing those impressions.  I think you’ll realize that writing a memo that is more than simply passable and explaining the law are important assets that you may wish you had developed more.

The ICWA project is a big project and requires serious effort and planning if you are to be satisfied with your product.  It culminates in a real challenge in the form of an oral argument before a judge or practicing attorney.  You will need to know the material as if you’ve lived with it your whole life and you will need to be able to explain it and put it in context so that judges will quickly understand both the situation and your key arguments.  Since there are a lot of materials, it is also important to listen to your classmates’ presentations.  If you don’t, you’ll be doing a lot more research on your own.

The small group atmosphere of Lawyering is designed to allow each person’s voice to be heard, but this isn’t home room.  So whether it’s spring time itches or leftover undergrad energy, please settle down and put some effort into this project.


Okay, I know this sounds like a fairly reasonable request to just simmer down, even if Matt (and that is his real name) did go about making it in a somewhat silly way.  But, so you can get a better idea of how out of place this e-mail is, here are two of the responses he was sent:

I agree with the substance of everything that was just said. I wanted to add a note:

Universally, during Orientation, the advice given by 2Ls regarding Lawyering was “it’s pass/fail, and should be treated that way.” I could never have understood, then, how astoundingly correct that assessment was.

The last time I received written feedback on a piece of writing submitted to the Lawyering program was on Dec. 19, two and a half months ago. That, itself, was a cursory set of highly abbreviated comments to a piece of writing (the Archer memo) which had been submitted over five weeks prior. To keep this in perspective, it took almost exactly the same amount of time to read and grade over 100 full-length exams. (Lawyering has a fraction of the students, no grades, and a professor without the publication pressure faced by others.) Was an explanation given for this massive delay? No, of course it was not.

Meanwhile, the class as a whole must endure constant back-handed remarks like “some of you have come a long way.” Exhortations are made to “teach each other” the material, which is attractive when you consider the alternatives, but when folks today attempted to do anything more than recite what was in the printed materials, they were quickly hushed.

We are berated for being delayed a minute or two on the subway even as the exercises have their schedules changed over and over. Materials distributed to the class contain basic errors in typography. The first semester featured what we now know are basic conceptual misunderstandings about tort theory, which have been joined in the second semester by similar errors in civil procedure. I realize it’s not a torts class or a course in civ pro, but it seems that an “atmosphere of professionalism” is best fostered by instructors not holding forth on topics of which they are ignorant.

The worst of it is that this occurs against a backdrop of other students who have valuable, useful Legal Writing/Lawyering classes, at this law school and others. A good friend of mine is a 1L at Fordham, and comparing our experiences has been like night and day. While we are forced to waste our time hearing about the “Narrative of § 1983,” there are people in the world who are actually learning how to research and write, all of whom now enjoy a tremendous advantage over those of us whose primary skill appears to be regular deployment of the phrase “contextual dynamics.” A large portion of the mediation exercise consisted of one paid actor talking to another paid actor.

None of this is personal (unlike remarks about “leftover undergrad energy”). If we seem not to take Lawyering seriously, blame NYU for admitting a group of students smart enough to understand that no one else is taking it seriously, either.


And, from another student in the class:


Thanks for your note. I appreciate your effort to help us, but I think you’re being a little unfair.

Lawyering is pass-fail. Because there’s no measure of how well a student performs that is readily available to employers, students necessarily approach the class with different levels of commitment. (Is a student who’s serious about getting a good job really going to use an unedited Lawyering assignment as a writing sample?)

Your point, which I mostly agree with, is that there is intrinsic pedagogical value to the exercises and that we should therefore work hard on them. But other people have different perceptions of the program’s value. Who are you or I to say that working hard on a memo is more important than studying for a graded class, watching T.V., or going to a bar? If you think it’s important that everyone take Lawyering as seriously as you did, lobby the administration to change the incentives the program creates. Make the class graded, award a prize for the best brief, whatever—but don’t fault students for responding rationally to the message the law school sends by making Lawyering pass-fail.

Moreover, we waste so much time in class that it’s unreasonable to demand serious discussion all of a sudden just because you think a particular exercise is important. Becky comes to class unprepared. The program as a whole systemically focuses on soft issues like “contextual dynamics” and the unattainability of objective truth instead of basic skills that translate into better legal research and writing. Against this background, many students have an expectation that class time will be unproductive; they see coming to class as an at-times amusing chore. You say we’ve turned a corner, that all of a sudden we’re doing work that matters. Maybe so, but could we have advance notice? What does that say about the value of the previous six months?

Lastly, I take issue with your tone. Calling students squirrels, accusing them of suffering from “spring time itches” and having “leftover undergrad energy” is inconsistent with the “atmosphere of professionalism and respect in all Lawyering classes and activities” that the program requires of both students and faculty. I know that you bring important real world know-how to the class, but many of us worked in demanding professions before enrolling in law school. Playing schoolmarm is no way to express your frustration that other people don’t value Lawyering as highly as you do.



I think those e-mails pretty much make the case for me, so I’m not really going to say much else.  These are the exact e-mails as they were sent, except that I changed the names of the two students who sent them.  The professor and TA names are their real names.

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